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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Bush Wants to Dish Up Big Change, but Will Voters Have an Appetite?

March 20, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

These past 10 years have not been a big decade for big ideas.

Almost every call for radical change, from left or right, has landed with a big thud. Think of Bill Clinton's universal health care plan in 1994, or the GOP plan to downsize government in 1995. Or, for that matter, the Republican tax cut of 1998 or Bill Bradley's health-care proposal this year. When Congress did pass two big ideas--packages to hike taxes and reduce the deficit in 1990 and 1993--each inspired a stinging electoral backlash.

Several factors have reduced the appetite for big changes: narrow congressional majorities that demand bipartisan compromise; public distrust of government (which makes voters leery of following politicians on large leaps), and, lately, a contentment with the country's direction that's diluted the demand for any change. All of this has converted both parties to the joys of incremental progress.

For better or worse, Vice President Al Gore has internalized this lesson. Cumulatively, his agenda is far more ambitious than Bill Clinton's in 1996, with significant proposals on education, health care and poverty. But no single Gore initiative involves a major shift in a program Americans now rely on; it's a big wall of relatively small bricks.

Surprisingly, the candidate most challenging this consensus is George W. Bush. Because he shares the family difficulty in expressing large concepts from the stump, Bush doesn't seem overly burdened with policy ambitions. And his education agenda, which builds on the experience of other GOP governors, fits the decade's step-by-step pattern. But in three other areas Bush is proposing big departures: the largest tax cut since Ronald Reagan in 1981, partial privatization of Social Security and a restructuring of Medicare.

At a time of contentment, all of these ideas will test the public tolerance for change. Anyone who watched Gore use Bradley's health-care plan the way a pit bull uses a terrier knows these proposals will also test Bush's ability to win a complex policy argument. "Gore is going to attack Bush on these things unmercifully," says Steve Moore, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, "so Bush better start . . . making the case for himself."

Of the three ideas, only Bush's call for an across-the-board cut in income tax rates has been extensively debated--and on this front Bush hasn't yet met Moore's test. Polls consistently show that a solid majority of Americans prefer to use the budget surplus primarily to pay down the national debt and strengthen Social Security and Medicare (as Gore urges) rather than for a large tax cut. Gore has wasted no time in painting Bush's tax plan as a threat to education, Social Security and Medicare, as well as the overall economic expansion. If Bush can't change the terms of this debate, his tax cut could prove more an anchor than a sail.

Social Security reform has received much less attention, partly because Bush hasn't detailed his plan. But he says he wants to allow workers to divert part of their payroll tax (he hasn't said how much) into individual accounts they could invest themselves.

By tapping into the stock market's dynamic growth, individual accounts could help younger workers accumulate more assets for retirement. The risk is that market fluctuations could leave more Americans dangerously short on cash when they retire. This debate hasn't ripened yet; Bush could strike a chord with younger workers, but he'll have to convincingly rebut Gore's charge that partial privatization through individual accounts would "destroy Social Security."

The Medicare debate is even less developed because the issue almost never came up in the GOP primaries. But Bush has endorsed a plan by Sens. John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to fundamentally restructure the massive health-care program for the elderly. And that guarantees fireworks with Gore.

Today, more than 80% of Medicare recipients receive care in a traditional fee-for-service system where Washington directly compensates doctors and hospitals under a complex set of rules. Under the Breaux-Frist plan endorsed by Bush, Washington would instead provide seniors a fixed sum with which to buy private insurance from a menu of approved plans. (Low-income seniors would receive extra subsidies, and those with higher incomes could use their own money to buy better coverage.) The fee-for-service Medicare option would still be offered, but its monthly premiums would likely rise high enough to compel many seniors to shift into a managed care option (especially if they wanted prescription drug coverage).

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